The Turk: Taking a Look at One of History’s More Unusual Firsts

Friday 21st September 2018 at Harrogate Theatre (Studio).

⭐️⭐️⭐️

‘Alas, poor Yorick!’ – in The Turk, we’re given something of an extended Hamlet-Yorick moment between our protagonist, Johann Maelzel and the head of the famous The Automaton Turk, a machine programmed through cogs and tech sorcery to play chess. Our speaker/indirect lecturer for the evening is aboard a ship in 1838 preparing for his own death through one drawn out, muddled monologue delivered to this inanimate object with features so well carved that in the right lighting, it’s difficult to tell at first if the head atop a crate is attached to an additional actor… But no, the Turk’s head is mere craftsmanship and provides an ear for the increasingly unstable and unwell man reflecting on life and losses. Directed by Sylvia Vickers and written and performed by Michael Sabbaton, this ambitious one man show looks into the greatest existential question of all: what does it all mean? It’s all ‘words words words words’, whether sung or spoken, it’s still just a stream of polluted, diseased consciousness trying to find the meaning of human life when the earliest embodiment of artificial intelligence is staring back at him.

Aside from bottles of beloved wine, Maelzel has only the Turk’s head for company- the body being packed away in trunks. At times he loses track of his audience and from way down within his Yellow Fever trauma, seems to see the Turk as an array of other people. Emotions are all over the shop, along with thoughts, memories and all awareness of reality. Sabbaton quickly proved himself a passionate, fearless performer; there’s little respite from the murky waters of Maelzel‘s narrative and he embraces the muck, the liquor and the grotesque displays of momentary temper with deep conviction. Somehow, there’s a real sense of energy in the laboured movements and drawled commentary – he shuffles and languishes but he’s also extremely sharp. Sabbaton’s voice is also great – a feeling voice with a tone which gives the angst of the character a guttural, hollow unhappiness, but also recognisably takes pains to portray the lighter side of this man – glimpses of happier times of wit and fun with William before the fever drags us back towards bitter remembrance and anxious commentary on what the future means – if it even means anything at all. In short, it’s clear that the drunken, diseased Maelzel is bereft of happiness, health and meaning. Luckily for him (and us) however, he’s not without wit, lyricism or a penchant for narrative musical interludes… 

Comments on the role of technology and AI in our lives is an obvious component here. Maelzel may totter between confiding, yelling and screaming, but he also recognises that such mechanical feats are a boost and a threat to our vanity in their timelessness and immortal nature – staying the same while we mortals lose our bodies and minds to frailty…and it’s all as obscure and contemplative as that for the duration, excepting the departures from his tormented rapture to deliver contextual humorous ditties. The excitement and consternation which this early venture into technology and artificial intelligence inspired is relayed and is easily paralleled with the unprecedented reliance on technology in 2018 – not explicitly of course, but the script openly invites reflection on the ability of an artificial ‘thinking machine’ to outlive and outlast his human counterpart. It’s a well played bid to make this piece of new writing speak to a modern audience with several electronics per person muted or switched off in pockets and bags, and it nestles nicely into our own reflections as we listen.5E3C7C2B-9170-460F-A876-EB91E667D83D.jpegOverall, the concept here is a strong one and the script supports it with intelligence and impressive lyrical craftsmanship to mirror the artistry of the life-like Turk himself. For me, the issue is that this piece does too much of the same for much too long. Until the jigs start later on, Maelzel sits talking to a head, taking swigs from a bottle and periodically shifting an inch in one direction or another. What’s being said is definitely engaging, but it’s hard not to be over-aware of the fact that we’re seeing very little happening. As well as this, all of Maelzel’s reflections are laid out in the first act, with the second act very much treading on the same ground. While the writing is impressively feeling and subtle, giving way to comic asides and surprising moments of sharpness, all of this is perfectly evident in the first hour or so. In making The Turk almost two hours long, it begins to drag rather than impress, which does a complete disservice to something which shows such strength in writing and performance. If it were a neat 60 or 80 minute straight-through piece, I think it would be much more succinct and would give some of Sabbaton’s best moments real focus, but as it stands, despite an engaging performance, it tumbles awkwardly over towards the overlong and rambling.

The premise is a complex task to set; a period piece dealing with a very early version of the mechanical marvels all around us now – it manages to comment on both eras and all the in between too. The production’s pitch is: ‘A chilling tale of mystery, sentience and loss inspired by an 18th Century thinking machine’. I think ‘chilling’ is an oversell, but the mystery and loss is abundant – but only through our dying man of course – the show isn’t mysterious and nor is the Turk as we see him, but our character is most certainly stupefied and intrigued by the mysteries of life and death… Having such a poetic, philosophical script at the centre of this slurring haze of purgatory is an oddly perfect contrast. With such an intelligent script and the evident parallels with Hamlet, it’s often a little like watching Dylan Moran’s Bernard from Black Books trying his hand at Shakespeare, and I mean that as a compliment – the drunken sailor trope gets a great outing here. The fact that Sabbaton even quotes Hamlet in the programme when discussing this work is very telling and if Shakespeare is a conscious source of inspiration of Sabbaton when it comes to his writing, then it has served him very well. With some discerning trimming down of the running time, this work could really fulfil its full potential as something new,  quirky and unique in a theatrical landscape of adaptations and revivals.

The Turk is presented by Michael Sabbaton and Harrogate Theatre. It plays the Harrogate Theatre until September 29th 2018 and you can find tickets here.

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